Search Results for 'silent'


City Lights

It would be unfair to mix the silent comedy features and shorts together in any kind of ranking. The shorts are funnier per foot of film, while the features have stronger characters and more satisfying plots. It may seem odd to list only Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd features, when there are so many comic talents to choose from. Even so, it would be best start at the top and work down to the next rung, which would include Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, and Raymond Griffin. Walter Kerr’s book The Silent Clowns is the best introduction (other than the films themselves) to this most creative era of film comedy — so far.

(1) City Lights (1931; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

(2) The Gold Rush (1925; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

(3) Seven Chances (1925; directed by Buster Keaton) On DVD

(4) The General (1927; directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman) On DVD

(5) The Kid Brother (1927; directed by Ted Wilde and J. A. Howe; starring Harold Lloyd)

(6) Modern Times (1936; directed by Charlie Chaplin) On DVD

(7) The Freshman (1925; directed by Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer; starring Harold Lloyd)

(8) Sherlock, Jr. (1924; directed by Buster Keaton) On DVD

(9) Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1927; directed by Charles F. Riesner; starring Buster Keaton) On DVD

(10) The Kid (1921; directed by Charles Chaplin) On DVD

The Wind

The Wind (1928) is a high watermark (if you’ll excuse the pun) for both its star and director. Lillian Gish had played mostly innocent waifs in D. W. Griffith’s films. Those performances are among her best, but she hadn’t been given a chance to take on a wide range of roles.

When she signed with Irving Thalberg at MGM, she was given almost complete control over her career. Her first two films there were La Boheme (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926). Gish chose the directors (King Vidor and Victor Seastrom, respectively) and the leading men (John Gilbert and Lars Hanson, respectively), as well as the stories.

For the third film, she chose Seastrom and Hanson again. Based on Dorothy Scarborough’s novel of the same name, The Wind gave Gish an opportunity to play an innocent who becomes a more experienced, self-aware woman. It was her last and best silent performance.

Before immigrating to Hollywood, Swedish-born Victor Seastrom (a.k.a. Victor Sjöström) had established a reputation as one of Europe’s most talented film directors. His Swedish films often contrasted repressed (even obsessively stunted) characters with the elemental forces of nature. His best known American films — He Who Gets Slapped, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind — also deal with repression and suffering.

Despite the somber plotlines, Seastrom’s films are breathtakingly beautiful in their depiction of the natural world. Seastrom seems to be saying that human pettiness means little when set against the grander scale of nature. Repression of one’s own nature, or stifling the nature of others, is viewed as contrary to the natural order of things.

Repression versus nature is the central theme of The Wind. Gish is perfectly cast as an innocent who is expected to conform to the base and selfish desires of those around her. As her character matures, Gish handles the transitions with self-assurance, while still retaining enough naiveté to make the changes appear convincing.

Few films are able to portray nature as such a tangible presence, as The Wind is able to do. The wind and sand are as much a part of the story as any of the characters. I can’t think of any other films, with the exception of two Japanese movies from 1964 (Woman in the Dunes and Onibaba), where the story, characters, and location are as intricately connected for the entire length of the film.

The Wind
(1928; directed by Victor Seastrom; cable)

Tuesday, June 2 at 6:45 a.m. on Turner Classic Movies

La Jetée

When I think of classic short films, I usually recall the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. Or I might remember my favorite cartoons from Walt Disney, Dave Fleischer, or Chuck Jones. Of course, there are many other fine short films that span the decades.

One of the best shorts from the 1960s is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). It’s remarkable for several reasons. First, it tells an absorbing story that builds to a never-to-be-forgotten climax. Second, it’s technically innovative in a way that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. And third, it shows you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a film production — if you have the imagination to transform the technical deficiencies into creative assets.

I’ve never encountered anyone who wasn’t impressed by this superb 26-minute film, yet strictly speaking, it may not quality as a motion picture. With the exception of a few seconds in the middle, the story is told entirely through still images. That had to save a ton of money, yet Marker was able to create the illusion of movement by panning, fading, cross-fading, and sequencing the images to match the narration, emotionally charged music, and occasional sound effects.

The story, which involves time travel and the persistence of memory, is an ideal fit for this approach. The protagonist is selected for the time travel experiments because he retains fragmentary images from the past and may be able to fill in the gaps (similar to the audience having to mentally fill in the missing film frames).

This short will appeal to a broader audience than just science fiction fans. It has a wistful romanticism that’s as vital to the story as any of the more fantastic elements. Though Marker is an American, he filmed La Jetée in France. As a result, it’s much closer in tone to Françoise Truffaut than to Hollywood sci-fi.

A newer version of this short replaces the French narrator — and English subtitles — with an American narrator, who I assume is Chris Marker. The out-of-print DVD titled Short 2: Dreams had this version, which was Marker’s “preferred cut.” I prefer the original version, though either would qualify as one of the best shorts made during the second half of the twentieth century. The Criterion DVD and Blu-ray have what are essentially both versions. You can run it with either a French or English narrator, and add in English subtitles to supplement the French narration.

You may have read about La Jetée because of its connection with Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Gilliam explains in his La Jetée DVD commentary that 12 Monkeys was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the short. The screenwriters used it to generate ideas for their script. Gilliam, however, chose not to see it until 12 Monkeys was completed. After finally viewing La Jetée, Gilliam proclaimed Marker to be a genius.

La Jetée
(1962; directed by Chris Marker; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD) [both discs includes Marker's Sans Soleil]

Thursday, May 28 at 11:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Grand Illusion

What can I say to convince you to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), if you haven’t already seen it? (If you have already seen it, you won’t need convincing). This quote from Orson Welles should do it, “If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett once asked Welles what his favorite films were. Welles answered, “Grand Illusion and something else.” The story goes that large numbers of people tried to track down this other film, they thought was titled Something Else.

Grand Illusion is a truly great film. It’s enriched by Renoir’s sincere compassion for humanity. It has outstanding moments of comedy and tenderness. There’s wartime intrigue and even a hint of romance (not easy for a story that centers around an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp). The title unlocks some of the thematic layers in the film. There’s the illusion the aristocracy will be able to return to their former roles after WWI. There’s also the illusion that the equalities of war will remain completely intact after the war. Renoir embraced the democratic movement that swept away the autocracy, but at the same time, he was nostalgic for the manners, decorum, and traditions that would be lost. Renoir’s best films view human behavior as complex and even contradictory. Employing improvisation even in a tightly structured film such as this one, he strived for a realism that still felt natural and spontaneous.

This film is also notable for its appearance by silent film director Erich von Stroheim, whose realistic style influenced Renoir and motivated him to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t until late in the production schedule that Renoir learned he would be able to cast Stroheim in the part of Captain von Rauffenstein. In his autobiography, titled My Life and My Films, Renoir explained how Stroheim affected both the role and the film:

His part, which at first was a very minor one, had been greatly enlarged because I was afraid that, confronted by the weighty personalities of Gabin and Fresnay, he would look like a lightweight. In art, as in life, it is all a question of balance; and the problem is to keep both sides of the scales level. That is why I took liberties with von Stroheim’s uniform, which was quite out of keeping with my realistic principles at that time. His uniform is authentic, but with a flamboyance quite unsuited to the commander of a POW camp in the First War. I needed this theatrical façade to counterbalance the impressive simplicity of the Frenchmen. There are instances of stylization in La Grande Illusion, despite its strictly realistic appearance, which takes us into the realm of fantasy, and these breaks in illusion I owe largely to Stroheim. I am profoundly grateful to him. I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale.

Ultimately, what makes Grand Illusion a powerful film is its optimistic message that differences can be bridged through goodwill and understanding. It isn’t a pro-war film because it doesn’t glorify war, and it’s not even an anti-war film, though Renoir in 1937 paradoxically declared himself to be both a pacifist and strongly opposed to Hitler’s aggression (a paradox he addressed in one of his first Hollywood films, This Land Is Mine). For Renoir, war is simply the ideal theatrical stage to show how men can overcome their differences in class, language, race, education, and politics.

Grand Illusion
(1937; directed by Jean Renoir; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (out-of-print DVD)
Lions Gate
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Monday, May 25 at 3:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Blue Angel

Ask film buffs about director Josef von Sternberg, and you may receive a blank stare. Others assume that The Blue Angel (1930), his best known film, was probably the work that brought him to Hollywood. In fact, Sternberg had already made a name for himself in Hollywood, directing such silent gems as The Salvation Hunters (1925), Underworld (1927), Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).

When Emil Jannings returned to the German studio Ufa following the advent of sound, he requested that Sternberg direct his first sound film. Once the script was written, Sternberg and producer Erich Pommer weren’t sure who should play the part of Lola, the cabaret singer. Ufa was about to spend half a million dollars on the production, so the casting for the part was critical. By chance, Sternberg saw Marlene Dietrich on stage in Berlin (he had attended the play to see another actor). In his book Josef von Sternberg, Herman G. Weinberg writes:

From the moment Sternberg noticed Dietrich on the stage he knew he had found his Lola, but neither she nor the heads of Ufa were sure she could do it. It took a lot of persuasion before she agreed to a screen test. Sternberg was pleased with it and Pommer, who always protected the artistic choice of his directors, approved the signing of Miss Dietrich.

The film was a big success in Germany. Sternberg had shot both German and English versions of the film. By the time it opened in the United States, Dietrich had already signed a contract with Paramount, where she and Sternberg would make six more films together: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), The Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935).

With Sternberg’s later films at Paramount, especially The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman, he crafted lighting techniques and a visual style that set him apart from other filmmakers. For Sternberg, the plot and characters are less important than the overall atmosphere. For lesser directors that would be a recipe for disaster, but for Sternberg, it set him free to explore and create films unlike any others, that are no less interesting than films driven primarily by plot and character.

Don’t worry, The Blue Angel doesn’t go that far. Plot and character are among its strong suits. It’s worth watching for a host of reasons, not the least of which are the outstanding performances by Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. This is the film where Dietrich first sings, “Falling in Love Again.”

The Blue Angel
(1930; directed by Josef von Sternberg; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Kino Video
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $34.95 (DVD)

Sunday, May 17 at 10:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Singin' in the Rain

Is there anyone into classic films who doesn’t like Singin’ in the Rain (1952)? Given that 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds had never danced before, and the script had to be written around a group of songs with little in common, it’s a wonder (and a tribute to those involved) that this would turn out to be the greatest Hollywood musical.

Reynolds received six months of intensive dance training before the production began. She had already shown her singing ability and plucky appeal in her previous films (most notably in Two Weeks with Love, where she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter).

Famed creative team Betty Comden and Adolph Green were given the near impossible task of crafting a storyline around a diverse selection of tunes from the 1920s and 1930s. Two songs, “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes,” were new to this production. “Make ‘Em Laugh” was adapted from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Gene Kelly performed in The Pirate (1948). The others were part of a catalogue of songs, acquired by MGM, that had been written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Singin’ in the Rain is filled with references to other films. The story centers around the period from 1927 through 1929 when the industry transitioned from silent films to “talkies.” There are allusions to particular films from that period. For example, the fictional film the characters are producing (titled The Dueling Cavalier) is based on an actual film, titled The Cavalier (1928). Like its fictional counterpart, it began as a silent film but was hastily transformed into a sound film, largely through the addition of poorly dubbed musical numbers. And in the Hollywood premiere sequence, the character Zelda Zanders, known as the “Zip Girl,” is meant to evoke the real-life Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl.”

Just as they borrowed songs and plot devices from earlier movies, co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly scavenged the back lot for suitable props from previous MGM movies. Debbie Reynolds’ car is Andy’s old jalopy from the Andy Hardy series. And the mansion where Gene Kelly lives is decorated with furniture and fixtures from Flesh and the Devil (1926).

The movie references extend to the musical numbers and film-within-a-film scenes. The “Gotta Dance” number echoes previous MGM musicals, including Words and Music (1948), The Pirate, Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). Gene Kelly’s musketeer movie at the beginning of the story recalls his earlier film, The Three Musketeers. And when Kelly brings Reynolds onto an empty sound stage and turns on the lights, it mimics his earlier film, Summer Stock.

While the movie references are fun for film buffs, the real joy comes from the memorable songs, exuberant dance numbers, and snappy dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be amazed to find how good a movie musical can be. Even if you don’t like movie musicals, you’ll probably like this one. Nothing else comes close.

Singin’ in the Rain
(1952; directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Sunday, April 26 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Captain Blood

Captain Blood (1935) is the first of three exceptional swashbuckling films from an unlikely trio: director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and actor Errol Flynn. While the other two films — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — are better known, Captain Blood is in many ways the superior film because the trio hadn’t yet settled comfortably into the format.

Known to be hard working, but temperamental, Curtiz was an odd choice to direct a pirate movie. The genre hadn’t been popular since the Douglas Fairbanks films of the 1920s, though it experienced a sudden resurgence in 1935 with the release of both Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty. This was Korngold’s first original film score, and it forever associated his name with classic action-adventure films. The three films just wouldn’t be the same without Korngold’s rousing scores. And 26-year-old Flynn wasn’t supposed to play the title role that propelled him to fame almost overnight. Robert Donat had been the first choice based on his success the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo. He turned down the part because of poor health.

The studio wasn’t able to spend a lot of money on this project. If you look closely, you’ll notice the ships in the battle scenes aren’t full size. Instead, Curtiz and cinematographer Hal Mohr used miniatures, process photography, and clips from the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk.

Though clearly a product of Hollywood, this film has an international pedigree. Curtiz had fled his native Hungary in 1918 when the communist regime nationalized the film industry. Korngold, the son of a well-known music critic, had emigrated from Vienna earlier in 1935. Flynn grew up on the Australian island state of Tasmania. And co-star Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, though her parents were British.

Captain Blood
(1935; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & DVD)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, February 11 at 11:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

The second film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is best viewed as a companion piece to Fort Apache (1948). Where in Fort Apache, ritual and duty are questioned and even challenged, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon affirms ritual and duty as both necessary and honorable. As a result, Captain Nathan Brittle (played by John Wayne) is a more sympathetic character than Fort Apache’s Colonel Thursday. Where Fort Apache shows how unity can be disastrous when following a misguided leader, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon shows how unity can succeed when a leader understands the long-term goals and doesn’t underestimate the enemy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was well received at the time of its release. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say about it in his New York Times review dated November 18, 1949:

For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent “Indian country” and across the magnificent Western plains.

The story is set immediately following Custer’s Last Stand (a historical event that was the basis of the fictional confrontation in Fort Apache). Ford emphasizes that both the army and the Indian forces are unified from diverse groups. The narration explains that the uprising consists of many different Indian nations who are emboldened by Custer’s defeat. The story also provides numerous references to the cavalry being strengthened by its absorption of the Confederate soldiers.

Captain Brittle is about to retire, and a key question in the movie is whether the new soldiers will have the experience to understand not only what’s at stake, but also why a conflict isn’t inevitable. When Brittle and Sgt. Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) enter the Indian camp to try to avert a battle, it’s clear the young Indians no longer heed the wisdom of their elders. Ultimately, it’s the willingness of the cavalry to incorporate the experience of its elders (and the willingness of the young recruits to follow that wisdom) that gives the army an advantage over the Indians.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(1949; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, February 7 at 1:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the least appreciated of the top screwball comedies, in part because director Leo McCarey isn’t as well known as directors Frank Capra, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or even Howard Hawks. His best comedies include Let’s Go Native (1930), Duck Soup (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and The Awful Truth. These comedies share a relaxed feel, seamless construction, and almost unequaled comic timing. McCarey was quite willing to improvise on the set, yet his films stay focused, which isn’t always the case with directors who improvise. Of course, it helps if you’re working with top talent. McCarey directed some of the best work of The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, and Eddie Cantor.

McCarey shifted away from comedy in the 1940s. During the war years and into the 1950s, he specialized in competently made, often sentimental dramas, such as Love Affair (1939), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and An Affair to Remember (1957). Throughout his career, McCarey brought a human touch to his films that was both sincere and discerning. According to Andrew Sarris’ book The American Cinema, “Jean Renoir once remarked that Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director.”

The Awful Truth is based on Arthur Richman’s 1921 Broadway play of the same name, which was also the basis for a 1925 silent film and a 1929 sound film. The same story was remade as a musical in 1953 with the oddly appropriate title, Let’s Do It Again.

Because McCarey could make the characters so believable and likeable, almost from the start, he and screenwriter Viña Delmar were able to infuse the dialogue with an intelligence and grace you rarely see this side of Lubitsch. Here’s an example of the lines given to the main actors, Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner) and Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner):

Lucy: You’re all confused, aren’t you?
Jerry: Aren’t you?
Lucy: No.
Jerry: Well you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool… but I’m not now.
Lucy: Oh.
Jerry: So long as I’m different, don’t you think that… well, maybe things could be the same again… only a little different, huh?

If you like comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941), you’re almost sure to like this one. It’s a rare treat.

The Awful Truth
(1937; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, February 4 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Random Harvest

No matter how many classic films you’ve seen, there will always be films that escape your notice. They may no longer exist (most silent films, for example). There may be rights issues (the long version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, for example). Or you didn’t know enough about them to actively seek them out (hence this site’s tagline: so many movies, so little time).

I hadn’t seen Random Harvest (1942) until about six years ago. I had forgotten what a competent director Mervyn LeRoy was and had neglected to look for his other films. Admittedly, his output is uneven, but any director responsible for the likes of Little Caesar (1930), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Hard to Handle (1933), They Won’t Forget (1937), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Mister Roberts (1955; co-directed with John Ford) is worth further study.

As a sentimental romantic drama, Random Harvest is surprisingly restrained. This is a film that tugs on the heartstrings without treating the audience as though it has a collective IQ of 50. The various twists and turns are laid out carefully, and even when you know where it’s heading, the movie remains intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The plotline is important, so do refrain from reading too much about this one until you’ve had a chance to see it. Above all, don’t read the back of the DVD case, which gives away half the plot (what were they thinking?). The story is based on the novel by James Hilton, who is best known as the original author of two other Hollywood adaptations: Lost Horizon (1937) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). That these three creatively successful films were directed by three different directors speaks well of the narrative strength of the novels.

The casting of the two leads is another plus. Ronald Colman and Greer Garson were highly regarded by their contemporary audiences. Today, they’re barely known by the general public. If you’ve ever wondered just how talented Colman and Garson were, this film should answer that question in spades. Bottom line: If you tend to avoid sentimental Hollywood dramas, give this one a chance. The performances, script, and direction place it firmly in the don’t-miss category.

Random Harvest
(1942; directed by Mervyn LeRoy; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, February 2 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Out of the Past

It’s interesting to note that my two favorite film noirs of the 1940s — Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) — also have the two best femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer). Which one is the deadliest? If both were in the room, I would say keep your eye out for Greer. She’s much better at convincing those around her that she couldn’t possibly be doing what you think she is doing.

In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) describes Kathie Moffat (Greer) as “a bit cold around the heart.” Jeff knows he is being conned, and that he is going to have to pay big time for it, but he can’t help himself (just like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity).

This was Mitchum’s first starring role, and he wasn’t the first choice. Both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part. This is arguably Mitchum’s best role and a perfect launching pad for his career. Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling, who sends Jeff to look for Kathie, his mistress. Daniel Mainwaring (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes) wrote the screenplay based on his novel, Build My Gallows High.

Director Jacques Tourneur expertly guides the viewer through the various plot twists and double dealings. Tourneur is best known for his previous collaboration with Val Lewton on the atmospheric horror films Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), though Out of the Past is probably his finest film. He came by his talent naturally. His father was Maurice Tourneur, a well-respected Hollywood silent film director.

Here’s a trivia question for you. When the film was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds, what part did Jane Greer play? She was cast as the mother of her original character.

Out of the Past
(1947; directed by Jacques Tourneur; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, December 2 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Sunrise

If you’re going to write about classic films, you have to stick your neck out — and take the chance others will stick their tongues out in response. OK, here goes. As much as I love Citizen Kane (1941), I think Sunrise (1927) is the better film. In fact, it may be the best film ever made.

If you’re not acquainted with the great silent films, such as Sunrise, Napoleon, October, and Greed, you may wonder how any film that’s missing an important component such as sound could possibly be superior to the best films that have the full palette of creative possibilities. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Silent film became a highly expressive art form precisely because it lacked sound. If you listen to your favorite songs on the radio, are you upset they don’t have accompanying pictures? Is a Vermeer painting incomplete because it doesn’t have a soundtrack? By the late 1920s, film directors had established a rich visual vocabulary and were continuing to explore new possibilities. That was cut short in 1927 with the marriage of film with sound. And there was no turning back.

Released on the cusp between the silent and sound eras, Sunrise (1927) played in theaters with synchronized music and sound effects via the newly developed Western Electric Movietone sound-on-film sound system. Even so, it’s a pure silent film. The story is told visually with a minimal number of intertitles. The director F. W. Murnau had complete control, just as Welles would have for Citizen Kane. Murnau had impressed Hollywood with his previous films from Germany, including Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926). Though produced in Hollywood, Sunrise looks and feels more like a film from the German studio, UFA.

Murnau was trained as an art historian, and he brought a painter’s eye to all his films. Sunrise in particular is stunningly beautiful. In a 1958 Cahiers du Cinema poll, it was voted “the most beautiful film in the world.” Welles used his film techniques to move the characters and story forward, but Murnau was ultimately the more talented director because his techniques were more tightly integrated into the fabric of the film.

Some of the techniques are almost breathtaking in their originality and subtlety. For example, when the husband walks through the marsh, the camera follows him, then moves on ahead to discover the woman he is secretly meeting. The camera movement feels exactly right, as though it was taking the same steps we would take if we were there in the middle of the action. Other techniques are almost invisible to the viewer, yet the end result is a stronger visual composition that creates the right mood for the characters or the ideal space for the story to unfold.

For example, Murnau wanted to have deep focus shots, similar to the ones Welles would use in Citizen Kane. A painter could easily achieve the effect, but the lenses and film stocks of the 1920s couldn’t quite do it. So Murnau cheated. He created the illusion of extreme deep focus by playing with the perspective. He placed midgets and small tables in the back of the room to make it appear as though the focus was extending further than it really was. He also placed furniture up front that was larger than it would normally be, in order to simulate a closer focus than was physically possible. All for a single shot.

Fortunately, you don’t have to dig below the surface like this in order to enjoy Sunrise. This is an extremely accessible film where everything serves a single goal — to tell a simple story in the best possible way.

Sunrise
(1927; directed by F. W. Murnau; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
20th Century Fox
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray), $29.99 (DVD, as part of Studio Classics: Best Picture Collection)

Monday, November 17 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Merry Widow

Ernst Lubitsch had no equal when it came to crafting sophisticated comedies. One of the first sound-era Hollywood directors known and revered by the public, his “Lubitsch touch” represented the pinnacle of intelligent humor. His version of The Merry Widow (1934) still towers over other comedies.

As Herman G. Weinberg pointed out in his book The Lubitsch Touch, “This time the first ‘Lubitsch touch’ came right under the credit titles as a magnifying glass sought in vain to find the tiny mythical kingdom where the action takes place.”

Ostensibly based on the operetta of the same name (which Erich von Stroheim used as the basis for his 1925 silent film), Lubitsch and screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson essentially threw out the plot and started from scratch.

Jeanette MacDonald is the wealthy widow who owns 52 percent of every cow in the small country of Marshovia. Maurice Chevalier is the playboy prince who is given the task of wooing her back from Paris, so her riches will remain in the kingdom.

Supported by an outstanding cast of character actors — including Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Sterling Holloway, and Hermann Bing — The Merry Widow is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a feeling of nostalgia for a golden age of screen comedy.

I’m happy to report that this movie is finally available on DVD, though it’s available only as a Manufactured on Demand (MOD) disc. That’s a DVD-R format. As a result, it may not play properly on some PC-based DVD drives or DVD recorders. I had no problems playing it on my PC-based DVD and Blu-ray drives, though your results may vary. This MOD disc should be issue-free with most standalone DVD and Blu-ray players (the kind you connect to a home TV).

The video and audio quality on this disc is first rate. Warner has done an excellent job of transferring this film at a suitably high bit rate (8000 kbps for the video and 192 kbps for the audio). The image had plenty of contrast and detail, and the sound (especially important for the musical numbers) was clear and never shrill. It looked great projected onto a 100-inch screen. Highly recommended.

The Merry Widow
(1934; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable & dvd)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $18.95 (available as a Manufactured on Demand disc from WarnerArchive and WBshop)

Wednesday, October 1 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Informer

You wouldn’t normally think of John Ford as directing a low-budget art film, but that’s the best way to think of The Informer (1935). According to Joseph McBride’s excellent book Searching for John Ford, the project was rejected by Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. before RKO agreed to let Ford make it on a shoestring budget (the final production costs were $242,756). That meant almost no money for sets and only 18 days for shooting.

Rather than fret about the restrictions, Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and cinematographer Joseph August crafted a visual story that’s defined primarily through shadows, fog, and backlighting. The style is reminiscent of the great silent German expressionist films, especially those of F. W. Murnau, whose work Ford admired.

In his 1943 essay “The Writer and the Film,” Nichols explained how this approach was an excellent match for the storyline:

I had an able mentor as well as a collaborator in the person of John Ford and I had begun to catch his instinctive feeling about the film. I can see now that I sought and found a series of symbols to make visual the tragic psychology of the informer, in this case a primitive man of powerful hungers. The whole action was to be played out in one foggy night, for the fog was symbolic of the groping primitive mind; it really is a mental fog in which he moves. . . .

Though often shy and reserved in real life, Ford could be a hard taskmaster when directing. He had to fight RKO to cast former boxer Victor McLaglen as Gypo, the central character. As McBride explains in his book:

Ford directed McLaglen with cunning calculation, bullying and tricking him into giving a great performance. Since he wanted McLaglen to grope for his lines to convey Gypo’s slow-witted, half-drunken condition, Ford continually changed the schedule to keep McLaglen unfamiliar with his scenes and surreptitiously filmed what the actor thought were rehearsals. He would send McLaglen off to run his lines with cast member J. M. Kerrigan at the nearby Melrose Grotto bar, and then would abruptly call a tipsy McLaglen back to the set to shoot his scenes.

The result is paradoxically realistic and expressionistic. The Informer was a popular success and widely praised by the critics. Though it came in second to Mutiny on the Bounty for the Oscar for Best Picture, Ford took home the Best Director award. In addition, McLaglen won Best Actor, Nichols won Best Screenplay, and Max Steiner won Best Musical Score. Though some of the symbolism may seem heavy handed, and the ending a bit forced, everything else works terrifically. And it doesn’t appear to be made under severe financial restraints. All the choices seem to be natural extensions of the plot.

The Informer
(1935; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $59.95 (as part of The John Ford Film Collection)

Tuesday, September 30 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies